0018 | Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami



REVIEW:
Finished this while recovering from an appendectomy in hospital. This was the first novel by a Japanese author I’d read in English so I was looking to see how well it translated. I found it wooden, simplistic and the plot sloppily developed. It doesn’t take any amount of genius to magic characters out of nowhere simply to get the story to “work” and I found Murakami’s characters, for all their introspection and quizzical soul-searching quite flat.

This was partly my experience in Japan. There, people simply do not have conversations like those in this book. The protagonist is 15 years old and discourses like a philosophy professor from a post-modern American university. People who hardly know each other and pour forth their darkest secrets. My interaction with the many Japanese I’ve come to know very well shows me that this novel is, in fact, pure fantasy, not just in terms of plot (you’d hardly have to struggle to believe that) but in terms of the characters conversations and relationships.

So, putting aside my comments on the reality of the characters and their interactions, I came to realise that the most important thing about this novel is the symbolic imagery. It’s more like a fable than a realistic novel. The storyline was ingeniously woven together, starting, as it does, with two seemingly separate characters whose lives are more than a little interdependent. Overall, the most intriguing thing about this novel is what it is actually about. Is it really a search for identity? And if so, is it resolved? And if it is resolved, is the fact that it’s done in such a (lit.) fantastic way actually spell doom for the rest of us?

Like most things Japanese, there is no answer other than the answer that there is. If that seems weird, then you’ve understood it right. Perhaps the concept of wabi-sabi applies here and one can only know what this is all about by, well, by being one who knows. All in all, on a metaphysical level, it’s a bit of a disappointment without some sort of key to all the metaphors flying around. In the end, you have to make your own meanings of it and, therefore, like most abstract art, it’s entirely what you think it is.

So, I found the novel overall disappointing and unfulfilling. If I wasn’t actually in love with Japan and its culture, I don’t think I would have found it half as interesting as I did. I’m hoping for better as I read more of his stuff in the future.

OPENING LINE
“So you’re all set for money then?” the boy named Crow asks in his characteristic sluggish voice.

QUOTES

in places where the sun doesn’t reach, moss has wordlessly covered the rocks.

Silence, I discover, is something you can actually hear.

Asking questions is embarrassing for a moment, but not asking’s embarrassing for a lifetime.

My shadow’s ony half of what it should be.

the police… just gangsters who get paid by the state

CLOSING LINE
You are part of a brand new world

RATING:
terrible > poor > mediocre > okay > good > very good > excellent > superb

FINISHED:
2007 – Apr

  • Fiver November 19, 2007, 10:09 am

    The problem is that in East Asian literature it’s more focused on thematic concerns then narrative. So you shouldn’t expect Murakami to have an enticing story or even a story that makes sense. The whole thing is based on ideas. What you should be reading for is the themes! You obviously weren’t, because if you did you would know that it was an Oedipal myth!

    The book was exquisitely well done. The narrative wasn’t but that isn’t the point.

    So since the narrative doesn’t make sense, the characters and the dialog were only there to further the themes. Sure, there was a narrative but it played second to the thematic drive. It’s not supposed to be realistic, you see now?

    Reply
  • Saurabh February 28, 2008, 8:56 am

    I am a huge Murakami fan, my first book of his being Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. I really enjoy Murakami’s fabulist form of writing and the psychedelic phantasmagoria he revels in. With that in mind, I found Kafka on the Shore a bit too prosaic, strait-jacketed if you please. However, it is still vintage Murakami, with the other-worldly library, the love-story that speaks through a single painting, and the mysterious forest bordering the hermit-like residence of the librarian. Not to mention the cat-killer. Sections of the book were a let-down (the librarian arguing with the women’s lib couple struck a particulalry jarring note) and the book definitely lacks the usual smooth flow of bizarreness. But when the bizarre flows, it simply gurgles with joy!

    Reply
  • Fernando Martins July 25, 2009, 11:00 am

    Arukiyomi, this is a great blog, and your nick coinage is very smart.
    I never went to Japan, much to my regret, but from a distance (I’m in southern Europe, just above Africa, in Portugal) I’m in love with some aspects of their culture.
    However, it never occurred to me, while reading this book, that I was having a glimpse of the real japanese culture, simply because it’s just “poetry”, really, or “ultra-fiction”, if you want.

    This had to be one of the books I most enjoyed reading, exactly because the imagination flows at 1000mph and doesn’t give any answers at all! You know that anyone that tries to answer anything ends up messing it all up… that’s because nobody has any answers.

    “So, putting aside my comments on the reality of the characters and their interactions, I came to realise that the most important thing about this novel is the symbolic imagery. It’s more like a fable than a realistic novel”

    Really?! You don’t say!… 🙂
    Of course it is! You can see that right from the beginning. That’s why it’s beautiful. If you realized that only half way through, you missed half the fun.

    “Like most things Japanese, there is no answer other than the answer that there is. If that seems weird, then you’ve understood it right. Perhaps the concept of wabi-sabi applies here and one can only know what this is all about by, well, by being one who knows. All in all, on a metaphysical level, it’s a bit of a disappointment without some sort of key to all the metaphors flying around. In the end, you have to make your own meanings of it and, therefore, like most abstract art, it’s entirely what you think it is.”

    Well, I may be wrong, but this review makes me assume that you’re north american. Americans *need* answers, and want everything explained and tied up in the end. That’s just so bad. So many almost fantastic movies you produce, only to blow everything up in the last 15 minutes… sometimes with the last *2* minutes! Spielberg’s “Minority Report” comes to mind – those last 20 minutes killed the entire movie and made my rating go from 8 to… 4.5, maybe. Before those 20 minutes it could almost be a Terry Jones movie (from Monty Pyhton, for those who don’t know this genius fellow)! And that’s saying a lot. But no, it wouldn’t work for americans… Americans need it all pinky and clear and “rounded” up at the end.

    The fun in reading and watching movies is exactly to work out your mind (not *every* time… mindless gags can be good too, every now and then)! If a movie or book doesn’t click your mind, then it was a waste of time.

    “Overall, the most intriguing thing about this novel is what it is actually about. Is it really a search for identity? And if so, is it resolved? And if it is resolved, is the fact that it’s done in such a (lit.) fantastic way actually spell doom for the rest of us?”

    Guess what – it doesn’t matter! It’s “poetry”! It’s a beautiful work of *your* imagination. Lovely to read. Fantastic for pace reading, for that way it transforms many of your days, not just one or two.

    Note:
    Sometimes I get a bit passionate and carried out and my written tone may differ from my intention. So I repeat it: “Arukiyomi, this is a great blog, and your nick coinage is very smart.”.
    I don’t want to bash you, I’m just trying to explain another point of view. An european point of view, which is oh so different from north american’s.

    Botton line:
    If all you expect are answers, you’ll end up quite disappointed. Just live without expecting any answers, live consciously, and have fun doing so (not easy the conscious-fun part, I know…). And one other thing: life is a great gift – don’t waste it being too rational, just let yourself flow.

    Reply
    • Arukiyomi July 25, 2009, 12:43 pm

      Hey Fernando, thanks for your excellent comment. I do get what you’re saying about reading it as imagery and symbology – poetry if you like. And I think I’ve grown a lot in that area over the last year. Reading novels has definitely helped that a lot.

      But please don’t label me as USAnian. You are so wrong there. Man… after that, I feel like I want to take a shower or something 😉

      My mother lives in Portugal actually, up near Coimbra. I’m from the UK but have lived my life mostly out of it all over the place .

      You sound a bit more fatalist in your viewpoint about life. That’s fine if you believe that que sera sera. But there are other ways to live and, if I’m a product of my nature and nurture and would prefer to have some answers to the questions that come at me in life, that’s cool too, no.

      And I think that Murakami asks questions in his writing as we all do when we communicate, especially cross-culturally. I’d just like to see something more valuable for life than a pleasant read come out of a novel.

      Reply
  • Fernando Martins July 25, 2009, 9:18 pm

    Thank you for your reply. After re-reading my post I was afraid you could end up a bit annoyed. I’m happy you didn’t so, because that was just not my intention at all.

    As for the fatalist part, I didn’t make myself clear on that. I’m not fatalist – as a matter of fact, I’m a NPL fan and I believe everything is always under my control. So I do take my life on my hands and I just don’t believe in fate at all!

    But I’m so damn rational that I enjoy a lot to let my imagination flow, at times. And that happens at its best while reading. And if it’s Murakami, it happens in a very special way 🙂

    Cheers and keep up the good work here at this blog that I will be revisiting (I got here from Shelfari, by the way).

    Reply

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